Two Virginia lawmakers hurriedly introduced legislation today that would repeal the statute under which thousands of the state's mental patients were sterilized in what the current law terms "the best interest of . . . society."
"I'm not comfortable living in a state that has a law like this," said State Sen. Joseph Y. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), who got the Senate's permission today to introduce the measure even though the deadline for filing bills has passed.
Gartlan's bill, co-sponsored by Del. Frank M. Slayton (D.-Halifax), was hastily drafted following disclosures late last week that more than 8,300 men, woman and children were sterilized at state mental hospitals and mental retardation centers between 1924 and 1972.
"I'm appalled by the story," said Gartlan, who conceded that he and Slayton will "have to do some fast moving" to get the bill through the Senate and House of Delegates before the General Assembly adjourns in two weeks.
If approved this session, the measure would drastically restrict the circumstances under which future sterilization operations would be performed, Gartlan said. The bill also would cause physicians to lose their licenses if they sterilize minors or mental incompetents without prescribed court authority.
The particular statute the bill would repeal now authorizes a hospital director to approve sterilization operations if the director decides a patient has an hereditary form of mental illness or retardation and should be sterilized "in the best interest of such patient and society."
Asked how the sterilizations could have gone on over a 48-year period without objections bring raised, Slayton said he thought the public and the legislature have only begun to pay attention to mental health issues.
"The public had very little interest in what was going on in these institutions, and only in the last nine years or so has the General Assembly tried to improve conditions," Slayton said.
He said the sterilization program probably was started because "it was easier to keep mental patients if they weren't bothering the administration by having children."
Slayton also expressed skepticism about the reliability of statistics on the operations or statements that the sterilizations ceased in 1972.
"Quite frankly, the records at these institutions are so inadequate I don't think they know how many there were or for how long," he said.
Both Gartlan and Slayton said the state's immunity against negligence suits as well as the statute of limitations probably would make it difficult for victims of the sterilization program to collect damages.
"The tragedy is that these people were not only not informed but had been lied to," said Gartlan, referring to disclosures that most of the patients were told they were having other types of operations.
"A lot of these doctors [who performed the sterilization] are dead now," said Slayton. Gartlan, however, conceded it might be possible for sterilization victims to seek compensation next year through the assembly's Claims Committee.